True Grit

This is a movie review, of sorts, which I don’t normally do and don’t plan to do all that often except when I feel like it.

Tuesday night for my birthday I decreed that we would see “True Grit,” the Coen Brothers adaptation of the Charles Portis novel which also beget the 1969 John Wayne original classic of the same name. I lay it out that way because this is a case where calling the movie a “remake” doesn’t do justice. For once, the powers of modern filmmaking and 21st sensibilities have been used to make something better, deeper and more meaningful, instead of just 3D, flashier and louder. This alone is the most impressive thing I can say about the new “True Grit.”

Maybe my feelings are just related to nostalgia. The original 1969 “True Grit” with Wayne, Glen Cambell and Kim Darby was one of those movies I saw several times over at my grandpa and grandma’s house in Keewatin when I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. They had cable. We didn’t. So the biweekly trip to their house was not only where I downloaded my family’s culture but also pop culture and classical education, such as was available from cable television in the ’80s and ’90s. Also those high school years, sitting in the living room with my grandpa, dad and uncles watching up to three westerns in a row on a Sunday afternoon was the last time I ever remember feeling relaxed enough to do something like that. Around that time, anyway. So that’s my baggage going into all this.

Then again, maybe I just like the film work of the Coen Brothers, which is stylishly straightforward. I constantly hear from fellow Minnesotans, especially the working class folks I see at the community college, how much the movie “Fargo” and its over-the-top dialect rankles them. But they don’t like the sound of their own voices and that is so Minnesotan, and also why I love the Coen Brothers. The Coens’ catalog is exceptional but their most recent work with “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit” is evidence of a shift from odd films that are great toward films that are just regular great.

Unlike the original, this version of “True Grit” is, like the novel, based solidly upon the character of Mattie, played by Hailee Steinfeld, a 14-year-old girl from the Wild West of Arkansas seeking revenge for the killing of her father. Mattie hires a grizzled U.S. Marshall and is joined by a Texas Ranger also working a bounty on the same man. Mattie makes this story work and Steinfeld makes this movie work. The ’69 version with Kim Darby in this role always left me wondering what was up with her. At the actress’s age of 20 I wondered whether her character’s ineptness was just due to the ineptness show by all women in those dated westerns or if it was because the character was younger than she appeared. In this version the opposite effect occurs to great benefit. At 14, Steinfeld’s Mattie is a girl, a ferociously intelligent and strong-willed girl. Her naivety shows at times, but overall she is the most principled, driven person on the screen at all times. She might be the best female character I’ve ever seen in a western. I can’t think of a better one as I sit here now.

Jeff Bridges in the role of Rooster Cogburn is also exceptional in the way he makes the hard-drinking, stubborn, old, fat U.S. Marshall a little more nuanced than Wayne did, who was really just playing himself. Bridges’s Cogburn is less iconic and forgivable, more the experienced lawman with a roguish background who drinks when he finds whiskey and becomes fairly awful. That is, except when he takes an interest as he does at the end of this story. Ultimately it is Cogburn’s begrudging need of human respect and admiration breaks him out of his rough spells, and Mattie provides any time he shows what drew her to him, his reputation of “true grit.” But it doesn’t take a MFA to figure out that Mattie’s the one with true grit.

Matt Damon is great as the Texas Ranger who joins the pair in the hunt for the killer of Mattie’s father, providing a great comic and literary foil for Bridges and Steinfeld. I also like the bad guys in this movie, definitely bad but not in the “black hat” ways of the old days. These are desperate, complicated men who are only shades more evil than a lot of the respectable people in town. Some are clearly mentally ill.

I don’t want to discard the 1969 “True Grit” because both that movie and this one are generally good and indicative of their times. I consider this to be a superior movie, however, and the tonic for what ails anyone longing for classic storytelling.

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